x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 August 2017

Modi and Trump: the beginning of another beautiful friendship?

The Indian prime minister must try to replicate the cordiality he established with Barack Obama with the former US president's more erratic successor, Donald Trump.

Friendship between leaders:Barack Obama, when he was US president, with India's prime minister Narendra Modi (R) during a working dinner in the East Room of the White House on March 31, 2016. Olivier Douliery / AFP
Friendship between leaders:Barack Obama, when he was US president, with India's prime minister Narendra Modi (R) during a working dinner in the East Room of the White House on March 31, 2016. Olivier Douliery / AFP

CHENNAI // Between 2014 and 2016, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi cultivated a strong personal relationship with US president Barack Obama. From the outside, the two leaders appeared to enjoy a genuine friendship with frequent meetings, fraternal hugs and warm words.

Now, Mr Modi must try to replicate that cordiality with Mr Obama’s erratic successor, Donald Trump.

The Indian prime minister landed in the United States on Saturday evening, beginning a two-day visit through which he hopes to forge a relationship with Mr Trump, and to build on the economic and defence ties he established with Mr Obama.

As Mr Modi put it on Twitter on Friday: “Strong India-USA ties benefit our nations & the world.”

The two leaders will meet for the first time on Monday at the White House. Mr Modi will also meet US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and US secretary of defence James Mattis.

On Sunday, Mr Modi will first meet the CEOs of several prominent companies, including Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google — both of Indian-origin. The prime minister will also attend a reception thrown by the Indian community in Washington, DC.

However, his focus will be on his first encounter with Mr Trump, for whom a personal connection matters more than consensus on bilateral issues.

“Modi’s top priority will be to establish a personal rapport with the US president,” Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at the Indian arm of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New Delhi, told The National.

“All other substantive bilateral issues will depend on the degree to which both leaders will be able to create chemistry and see eye-to-eye on key challenges, including how to contain China and re-engage Russia ... or if both countries should continue to expand their economic and defence partnership.”

On foreign policy in particular, Mr Trump has “sidelined the state department and other agencies”, Mr Xavier said. “This is beyond any previous presidential centralisation of powers in the United States.”

The Chinese and Japanese have responded to this and “for example, played the personality card very astutely, reaching out to Trump’s family and winning over his attention,” he added. “Modi will have two options: to engage in similar adulation, seeking to submissively gain Trump’s trust, or alternatively go for a hardball approach, transactionally setting out India’s core interests.”

Among these core interests is the economic and trade relationship between the two countries.

Mr Modi has championed his “Make in India” programme with a view to turning his country into a manufacturing shop for the rest of the world. But Mr Trump too, with his own “America First” agenda, has promised repeatedly to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas to the US.

“India will seek to convey that projects under ‘Make in India’ will not automatically result in job losses in the US,” said Sanjay Pulipaka, a fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, a New Delhi-based think tank.

The H-1B visa programme — under which thousands of Indians, particularly IT workers, find temporary employment in the US — will feature prominently in discussions, Mr Pulipaka added. It comes as Mr Trump intends to curb the number of H-1B visas issued, as a way of boosting domestic employment.

Mr Modi will also discuss the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative, launched in 2012 during the Obama presidency, to expand trade in defence material between the two countries. Since 2008, India and the US have signed US$15 billion (Dh55.1bn) in defence contracts.

As a pre-visit sweetener, the US on Thursday approved the sale of 22 Guardian drones to the Indian air force, a deal worth $2bn to $3bn. But part of Mr Modi’s Make in India initiative is to manufacture more defence equipment at home, to broaden the country’s industrial base.

The Indian delegation also want to gain a sense of Mr Trump’s strategic plans in India’s neighbourhood, and whether he wants to keep on maintaining the balance of power in that part of Asia, as the US has done for decades.

Over the years, India has carefully consolidated support from figures within the Washington establishment, winning bipartisan backing for trade and defence cooperation from members of congress. But however shaky Mr Trump’s presidency may appear day-to-day, he is still the locus of power in the US capital.

“The president of the United States, irrespective of our likes and dislikes, will have an ability to affect power-politics in distant parts of the world till the last day he is in power,” Mr Pulipaka said. “Therefore it becomes important for the Indian leadership to build good rapport with president Trump and his team.”

SSubramanian@thenational.ae